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Busing go-ahead in La. but more court action due

Only three days before school was scheduled to open, a flurry of 11th-hour court appeals by the Los Angeles school officials has failed to halt court-ordered busing.

In an extraodinary Saturday session, the state Court of Appeals rejected a request by the Board of Education to block the busing of students within the nation's second largest school district. But it ruled 26 schools already desegrated by voluntary means could not be used in the program.

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The board asked the state court to stay the busing plan after US Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist rejected its request for an order to stay the desegregation plan Friday.

As a result, the fierce tug of war between Los Angeles school officials and court authorities over desegregation is likely to drag on for two or three years. The complex, 17- year-old case gets its first hearing dealing with all the aspects of the issue in January in the California District Court of Appeal.

With the exception of the 1976 California Supreme Court decision that ordered Los Angeles to desegregate its schools, none of the court rulings to date have dealt with the merits of the busing issue.

At the heart of the current controversy is a desegregation plan outlined last May by Judge Paul Egly, who has overseen the district's desegregation efforts. And the plan is causing what many observers describe as the most confusing school opening in years.

Judge Egly's order, issued after 170 days of hearings, currently involves some 70,000 students -- less than one-eigth of the district's 538,000 pupils -- in grades 1 through 9 from 145 schools. Continuing court appeals may result in the addition of nine more schools to the plan.

The massive plan, which has been whittled away by appeals court rulings, replaces the board's plan.In effect since 1978, the school board's desegregation blueprint was criticized by busing advocates as a half-hearted effort.

Judge Egly's proposal doubles the number of students involved in desegregation efforts but substantially cuts the distance they will be bused. And it has drawn heavy fire from both sides.

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The Board of Education, with its anti-busing majority, wants a strictly voluntary busing plan. The American Civil Liberties Union, which first filed the case in 1963, has criticized the exclusion of predominantly black and Hispanic schools. Judge Egly had omitted these from the plan on grounds they were too isolated to be easily desegregated.

As the legal battles smolder, school officials continue to sort out last-minute student and teacher assignments under the Egly plan. Parents, as well, are trying to sift through the recent confusion, and have accounted for as many as 1,000 calls a day at the school district's fact-line headquarters. School is scheduled to open Sept. 16.

It remains unclear how many children will be in school when it starts. Unlike some other school desegregation efforts, most notably in Boston, violence has not been a problem here.

But resistance to busing is widespread, and some picketing is expected at local schools this week. In addition, it is predicted that hundreds of parents may keep their children out of school, enrolling them instead in home tutorial programs or private schools.

Some of that "white flight" has occured in the two years since forced busing began.

In 1977, white pupils accounted for 33.7 percent of the system's enrollment. That figure dropped to 29.7 percent last year, with Hispanics accounting for 38. 5 percent of the total, blacks for 24.6 percent, and Asians for 6.5 percent. Although changing demographics accounts for some of that decrease, some observers estimate that thousands of white students have left because of busing.

Much of the blame for the current confusion and lack of support for desegregation is laid on the shoulders of school board members. The board has been accused of heel- dragging and politicking. In addition, there has been little, if any, strong support from local business leaders or from elected officials such as Mayor Tom Bradley.

"School authorities are obviously the pivotal force in all this," contends John E. McDermott, executive director of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. "But here, there was never any willingness at any point to accept the court's ruling."

Anti-busing board members such as Bobbi Fiedler counter that Judge Egly, not the board, has been unreasonable.

School board members have based their thrust in an anti-busing proposition passed by California voters last year. That proposition, yet to be tested in the courts, states that mandatory busing may be ordered only when a school district is found guilty of intentional segregation, as stated under federal law.

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